Monday, 31 October 2011

AD, CE, does it matter?


I think it may have been Voltaire's fault.

Recently, there has been a certain amount of internet discussion about the terms CE and BCE as replacements for the venerable AD/BC dating system. The wickedly subversive commentator Mary Beard (that's her description, not mine) helpfully informs us that "CE and BCE have been around for years, and < are > often used instead of BC and AD". But surely the question is: "why?"

I know that, in English, pedigree is everything. A bit like a squatter in someone else's house: if he's been there long enough, he gets to stay. If Mary Beard's friends have been using CE long enough, they get to continue. Thank goodness they haven't been using YsHtGD ("Years since Herod the Great Died"). However, Mary Beard prefers BC and AD because BCE and CE sound alike when she says them in a lecture theatre (so she probably wouldn't have liked YsHtGD and YbHtGD, either).

A Christian System?

Of course, not everyone uses the BC/AD system: Jews and Muslims have their own chronologies. Many supporters of BCE/CE claim that it is more respectful to these other faiths. This is a spurious argument. (Would we expect Jews and Muslims to give up their traditional systems in order to find a universal, neutral chronology?) In fact, the average history student (for who else uses the terms?) has no interest in knowing what BC and AD stand for, only what they mean chronologically.

A better point might be that the BC/AD system is a western tradition. As Mary Beard observes, "it is now impossible to imagine unpicking the Christian calendar". And, in any case, why should we be expected to overturn a perfectly good tradition that everybody understands?

A neutral system?

As many perceptive readers already realise, the BCE/CE system actually perpetuates the so-called "Christian" system by adopting the same cross-over point. The underlying system remains the same. 27 BCE is still the same as 27 BC, only it takes an extra letter to say so. So why change the abbreviations? Why does it matter?

It's all Voltaire's fault

Historical chronology began with biblical scholars. Writing in Latin, they naturally used the phrases ante Christum (before Christ) and anno Domini (in the year of the Lord) for dating biblical events. When secular historians tackled the chronology of ancient Greece, they naturally slotted events into the biblical timescale of "years before J.C." For example, in 1732, when James Anderson compiled his Royal Genealogies (subtitled The Genealogical Tables of Emperors, Kings and Princes, from Adam to these Times), he tabulated thousands of events beginning with the creation of the world "in the imaginery Year of the Julian Period 710, on the 23rd Day of October, Afternoon, before the Christian Era 4004 Years". He acknowledged that the only existing chronological framework was a Christian one.

Subsequent events were dated "A.M." (Anno Mundi, "in the year of the world"), with the equivalent year "before Christ" (being 4004 minus the year A.M.), with alternatives in the "Julian Period" (being A.M. + 710) and various other chronologies (olympiads, "era of Rome", "era of Nabonassar"). The Year 4714 of the Julian Period (= A.M. 4004) began a new era, according to Anderson, "which by long use is call'd the Era of Christ, and its Year call'd (Anno Domini) the Year of our Lord; tho' strictly it should be call'd (Anno Erae Christianae) the Year of the Christian Era". All subsequent dates are given A.D.

This was the milieu in which historians were working in the 18th and 19th centuries. When men like Voltaire came to write, they used phrases like "in the common era" or "in the Christian era" or "in the vulgar era" interchangeably. There was no Christian overtone. They simply made use of the chronologies worked out by men like James Anderson.

Which is better?

Any chronological system requires a fixed point. AD 1 painlessly gives us our fixed point, whether or not we agree with the reason for its invention. Any alternative chronological system would require a different fixed point to be agreed upon.

Perhaps it's simplest to stick with the BC/AD system. If some people feel the need to disguise its origins by relabelling it CE, who am I to complain?